A central figure in Ethiopian arts, Melaku and his ensemble dedicated to traditional instruments and dances come to the U.S. to transfix and transform with seismic live performances.
They call Ethiocolor founder and leader Melaku Belay a “walking earthquake.” By sheer force of will, turning shimmying shoulders into blazing ecstasy, he’s helped put Ethiopia’s 2000-year-old Azmari culture on the world map. The winner of a long list of international accolades, the most prominent contemporary interpreter of Ethiopia’s eskista, a rhythmic, shoulder-shimmying dance, Melaku draws tens of thousands to Fendika, the independent arts center he founded in Addis Ababa, every year.
It’s easy to see why: It’s impossible to tear yourself away once Belay leaps into motion, once Ethiocolor lays down sophisticated yet instantly intoxicating grooves that make traditional instruments (krar, bass krar, masenko, kebero drums) hit as hard as any funk band. It’s the palpable joy in every second, when it’s clear everyone on stage and around it are exactly where they want to be.
There’s a powerful reason behind the tranced-out sets and packed rooms. Ethiocolor uses traditions to heal, to re-engage with some of Ethiopia’s deep roots in fractious times. That’s why Melaku is adamant that these dance and music forms cannot be allowed to die out. As he puts it, “When I’m sad or missing justice, I heal myself with dance and music. I want people to know about the best things we can give to the world. The world only knows about hunger and war here. But I love my country and I understand how much we have, in our history and our modern culture.”
Ethiocolor has become a sought-after collaboration partner, and groups like Debo Band and Holland’s post-punk legends The Ex have clamored to record and tour with them. Thanks to these international connections, the group has performed everywhere from Dubai to Copenhagen. Melaku has even been honored as a TED Fellow in 2022. Yet none of this reduces the core calling Melaku and Ethiocolor feel in their work: to bridge, to heal, and to fan the embers of neglected cultural traditions into full-on flames.